‘What to wear in Thailand’ is answered with 2 quick questions. What’s appropriate in a modest country? And, what clothes suit Thailand’s hot, humid climate? It’s easy! Find out why Thailand’s dress code is no problem.
Thailand’s dress code: what to know
Bar girls and lady-boys aside, Thailand is a modest country. Think a PG-13 corner of Utah on a very hot day. There are no actual rules; Thailand is used to under-dressed foreigners (even undressing foreigners). However, staying ‘more covered than not’ will be appreciated (and you’ll likely enjoy better service). Just choose clothes that hit closer to your knees than anatomy in the opposite direction. Consider this more/less bendy, depending on your destination. Snorkelling on Samui? Don’t worry about it. Browsing Bangkok’s malls? You’re in tropical Manhattan. Hiking with hill tribes? Cover up.
What to wear in Bangkok?
Checking out of a 5-star Bangkok hotel once, one of us (ahem) was wearing a pair of Crocs. After settling the bill, the receptionist, as charming as could be, said her goodbyes:
“You’re a very nice man. But you have such ugly shoes.”
Assuming you’re an upstanding citizen with noble intentions, consider Bangkok the shiny metropolitan city that it is (and dress accordingly). Aside from visiting temples and nice bars or restaurants, casual sight-seeing clothes are the norm. This doesn’t include a bathing suit: wear actual real clothes. Want to improve diplomatic relations and enjoy better service in Bangkok? Dress 10% nicer than the tourist fray, as follows…
What should men wear in Bangkok? Collared shirts or polos are recommended (instead of T-shirts or – Australia! – singlets) and … apparently not Crocs. Choose loafers or boat shoes over flip-flops or running shoes (really – stand back and watch service levels improve).
When and where should men wear shorts versus pants/trousers? The distinction is more important when you’re choosing what to wear at night in Thailand.
What should women wear in Bangkok? Rather than baring all your bits, conjure Reese Witherspoon on an August day in Georgia.
What to wear at Thai temples?
Pay particular attention to the dress code for Thai temples as it’s where you’re most likely to cause offence (well, one of a few ways to be accidentally rude in Thailand). Most temples with tourist traffic have signs asking visitors to cover up, yet you’ll see many oblivious souls who still manage to miss this final memo.
Appropriate clothes for Thai temples: The basic rule is to cover your shoulders and knees (both sexes), and ideally you’d cover your ankles too. On the bottom, wear longer shorts, capris, pants/trousers or a knee-length-or-longer skirt. On top, choose any shirt that fully covers your shoulders. A T-shirt, blouse or polo is fine, while a tank top is not. However, a pashmina or scarf worn around the shoulders over a tank top is acceptable (or used as a makeshift long skirt), so it’s easy to get ‘temple worthy’ quite quickly.
Shoes: Closed-toe shoes are more appropriate, whether loafers, flats or canvas TOMs. Don’t wear laced shoes, as they’re taken off when visiting Thai temples. Tying and untying shoe laces? No thanks. A slip-on shoe or dressy sandal is ideal. Find out what shoes to wear in Thailand for the rest of your itinerary.
What to wear at the beach and pool?
Bikinis, trunks and typical resort-wear are de facto at the beach and pool on Koh Samui, Phuket and similar (as in any other popular vacation destination). Stepping into a beach restaurant for lunch? Just pop a cover-up or some shorts and a T-shirt on.
What should women wear? Stick with natural fabrics for cover-ups and – generally – fairly modest coverage. Always wear your bikini top. Topless sunbathing is a total taboo. No one’s going to lock you up, but it will make locals nearby very uncomfortable. Thai women (bar girls notwithstanding) don’t really ‘do’ cleavage.
What should men wear? Guys have it easy: your T-shirts and standard-issue ‘man shorts’ mean your modesty never need be a problem (just put your shirt back on when you leave the beach). White or black don’t show sweat!
Sun safety: Thailand is mere degrees from the equator and its UV rating is off the charts year-round. Even if you “never burn” at home, respect Thailand’s sun. SPF 30 – bare minimum, and always wear a hat! Rash-guard shirts are recommended if you plan to snorkel and/or burn easily.
What to wear in Thai beach towns?
To dress properly in Thailand is no great mystery – just a matter of basic observation and respect. Do Thai men go to the supermarket shirtless and barefoot? No. Do Thai women ride scooters in bikinis? Nope.
It’s just like at home: beach stuff stays on the beach. Other than that – it’s hot, and you’re on vacation! How to stay as comfortable as possible? It’s all in your fabric choice.
What fabric is best in Thailand?
The climate determines what you should wear in Thailand – a fine line between respecting local culture, and not melting to a puddle. Despite Thailand’s typical temperatures – mid 30s (over 90°F) – and high humidity, your fabric choices can win the game. You’re not coming on vacation to play “sweaty bush pig”, are you?
The worst fabric for Thailand? Two things not to wear: (1) Anything polyester. It will melt and so will you. (2) Jeans. Thais can wear jeans thanks to lifetime of heat-acclimation. You? You’ll combust. Instead…
Choose cotton + natural fabrics – the thinner the better! When packing for Thailand, only invite your 100% cotton buddies. Light-weight linen is equally comfortable (if you’ve asked yourself if you can really pull off linen pants). If you prefer, silk or silk-cotton also pack light and keep you cool. If you’re packing skirts or dresses, double check that any lining isn’t polyester. If so, leave it behind. In Thailand it’s as good as wearing a Ziplock bag. Note that these rules turn on their heads during Thailand’s rainy season, when you’ll want to choose totally different fabrics to contend with outrageous downpours and humidity.
Be wary of wicking material used in ‘performance wear’ dries quickly so you’re never stuck as a soggy puddle, but fabric weight can vary so only bring thinner ones. Check the tags before it earns a place in your suitcase as you’ll cook in polyester.
Ready to start packing?
With these tips you can easily enjoy total comfort in Thailand’s culture and climate, no matter what you have planned. If your itinerary takes you to Koh Samui, you can start and end your trip research (and your diet) with The Koh Samui Guide. If headed elsewhere in Thailand, load up your luggage with our 11 years’ trial-and-error packing experience, The A to Z Thailand packing list (+ 26 travel tips). Enjoy!